Cattle slaughter ban: It’s not intentions but consequences that matter

cow

By Sathya Karunarathne and Pravena Yogendra

The cabinet of Ministers approved the Bill to amend laws to ban cattle slaughter in the third week of October. While this is a contentious policy measure, it did not come as a surprise as the Prime Minister proposed the same policy just over a year ago in September of 2020.

From the outset, it may seem that the policy is well-intended. Alleviating animal suffering is a noble cause that many Sri Lankans would identify with. Unfortunately, even well-intended policies have unintended consequences. In the case of a cattle slaughter ban, the consequences can be dire for the livelihoods of thousands of people. As stated by the Department of Census and Statistics, 117,033 farmers raised cattle and/or buffalo locally and 56,984 farmers raised improved cattle and/or buffalo in 2020.[1] Further, as reported by the Livestock Statistical Bulletin there were 296,111 cattle farms and 26,284 Buffalo farms registered in 2020.[2]

The cattle rearing industry does not exist in isolation, nor is it sustained to nurture the beef industry alone. Cattle are an integral part of the dairy industry, leather tanning industry and footwear and leather goods industry. The Dairy industry sells unproductive cattle, where 50% of the animal is salvaged as beef [3]and other parts are sold as raw material to other industries such as the leather tanning industry, etc. Therefore,a cattle slaughter ban would have consequences on all these sectors.

The government’s intention in banning cattle slaughter is to increase dairy production and local agriculture as reported by the media.[4] According to Central Bank data in 2020, the annual milk production from cattle was 414 Mn litres and 78 Mn litres were produced by buffalos.[5]  In the same year, Sri Lanka imported 102,355,524 Kgs of milk and milk products, and exported 1,057,079 Kgs of the same. [6]

To keep this dairy industry running, milk producers need to get rid of unproductive cattle. Mr Eranga Nihal Perera, the Chief of Ceylon Cattle Farmers Association put this into perspective speaking to the Sunday Times a few weeks ago. He stated that a bull or milch cow requires 10 percent of its body weight in food daily. For example, An adult stud bull weighs about 400 kgs. That is approximately 40 Kgs of feed per bull, every day. Therefore, a bull would require a monthly cost of around Rs, 26,000 to be maintained.[7] It makes limited economic sense to sustain unproductive cattle incurring such costs as it will increase costs of maintenance with no return on investment.

162,000 cattle were legally slaughtered in 2020.[8] Key person interviews with leading industry stakeholders revealed that the cattle population which amounted to 1,628,771 in 2020[9] can grow up to three times within ten years with the implementation of a slaughter ban with 75% of them counting to be unproductive.[10] The costs of maintenance will therefore evidently be unbearable. These cost increases, if they can be sustained at all, will be passed on to consumers as price increases in milk. A further stress to an industry already reeling with shortages and high prices.

Beef is sourced from cattle deemed as unproductive by the dairy industry. Male cattle or bull calves are used to identify female animals in heat and to serve stud purposes aiding the artificial insemination process. They are slaughtered for beef when they reach about three months of age. Milch cows are slaughtered after completing four calving cycles as they are considered aged, unproductive and unprofitable to maintain at this juncture. Unproductive animals must be culled to maintain the overall productivity of the herd as unproductive stud animals could mate with productive cows producing low yielding calves.

The latest available data shows that beef production in 2019 amounted to 29.87 metric tons.[11]

Smallholder dairy farmers contribute to this as smallholders dominate the livestock industry.[12] For example, a 2019 study by the University of Peradeniya revealed that among private dairy farms in the country about 95% are small scale producers.[13]While cattle farming in Sri Lanka is running on narrow margins, a significant contribution of the marginal profits comes from the sale of these animals to the beef industry. Dairy farmers make an annual lifetime profit of  ~30% from the sale of an animal. Therefore, small farmers who raise cattle individually for an additional income will be severely impacted by the ban. They will not be able to afford the additional maintenance costs of unproductive cattle and will have to halt their small scale business operations. 

Banning cattle slaughter with the intention of increasing dairy production therefore is contradictory as it proves to be counterproductive. As illustrated above the milk industry can barely sustain itself without the beef industry.

A slaughterer purchases an animal for ~LKR 300 per Kg live weight. Live weight ranges from 300-500kg. Thereafter, 50% of the animal is salvaged as beef and the remaining is sold to other industries.[14] The leather tanning industry is one such industry that sources raw material from cattle slaughter. A slaughtered cow yields 15-16 sq ft of rawhide. Rawhide is sourced from the slaughterer by the leather tanning industry at LKR 45 per Kg. Domestically tanned leather is sold to the footwear and leather goods industry as raw material at LKR 175 per Kg as opposed to imported tanned leather priced at LKR 250 per kg ($1- 1.20).[15] Moreover, discussions with the industry revealed that about 60% of leather needed to produce affordable footwear is produced domestically and banning cattle slaughter will directly impact the accessibility of affordable footwear by the middle and lower-income earners of the country. Further, more than 60% of the footwear and leather goods industry consists of micro and small businesses.[16] Therefore, this policy measure will indeed hamper their access to affordable raw material and their very sustenance.

Implications of Cattle Slaughter

As stated by the Buddhasasana, Religious, and Cultural Affairs Ministry Secretary, Prof. Kapila Gunawardana the government is discussing the possibility of exporting ageing cows that will not be slaughtered in Sri Lanka with the implementation of the ban.[17] However, exporting aged live cattle is challenging as there is a high probability of international markets being reluctant to purchase cattle exposed to infections in the process of transportation.

With the increase of idling cattle, the government will have to invest to build new cattle salvage farms ensuring adequate veterinary facilities and daily feed. The NLDB has only two salvage farms in Kurunegala and Anuradhapura with a combined capacity of 1,000 animals at a time.[18] About 400 cows are legally slaughtered per day.[19] As aged cattle require high maintenance costs with no return on investment, this will be an added strain on government expenditure given Sri Lanka’s current limited fiscal space and precarious economic conditions. This will also clash with limited agricultural land available in the country leading to a serious threat to crops.

Moreover, with the local beef industry coming to a complete halt, the domestic production and importation of alternative sources of protein such as chicken and fish will have to increase, meeting domestic demand and ensuring affordability for the average consumer. It is important to note that the prices of these alternatives have experienced a steep increase. According to the Department of Census and Statistics weekly retail prices, 1kg of fresh chicken that cost Rs 558.93 in November of 2020 costs Rs 727.27 now. Further, 1kg of Salaya that cost Rs.252.67 in November of 2020 is now priced at 291.67.[20]

Moreover, a flat out ban on cattle slaughter will breed an underground economy of illegal slaughter and trade. This will foster animal cruelty as the industry will not come under the purview of welfare authorities, creating the environment for low-cost slaughtering techniques defeating the very moral grounds of a cattle slaughter ban. Further, banning cattle slaughter with no ban on beef consumption allowing for beef imports will only shift the burden of slaughter elsewhere. This is hypocritical as cattle will still have to be slaughtered abroad, for the consumption of Sri Lankan people. It is worthy to note that India is the fifth largest carabeef exporter in the world earning 2.8 billion dollars in exports in 2020 [21] despite the country’s religious veneration of cattle.

It is evident that even though a slaughter ban may sound ideal in theory, it springs a chain of unintended economic consequences hampering the dairy, beef and other related industries paving the way for further price increases and posing a threat to business operations. Therefore, it is clear that when making economic decisions it is paramount to look at policies in terms of incentives they create rather than blindly pursuing a goal. This simply means that immediate and long term consequences matter more than intentions. Economic policies therefore must strive to go beyond intentions crafted by hopes and inspiration. Failure to do this will certainly lead to disastrous outcomes for the whole nation.


[1] Government of Sri Lanka, Department of Census and Statistics,Agriculture and Environment Statistics Division. Accessed on 18th November 2021 http://www.statistics.gov.lk/Agriculture/StaticalInformation/rubb7

[2] Government of Sri Lanka, Department of Animal Production and Health, Livestock Statistical Bulletin 2020. Accessed on 18th November 2021.http://www.daph.gov.lk/web/images/content_image/news_bulletins/livestock_statistical/Statistical_bulletin2020.pdf

[3] Interview with industry stakeholders

[4] Economy Next, “Sri Lanka Cabinet Approves Next Step Towards Banning Cattle Slaughter”, October 2021. Accessed on 18th November 2021https://economynext.com/sri-lanka-cabinet-approves-next-step-towards-banning-cattle-slaughter-87199/#modal-one

[5] Government of Sri Lanka, Central Bank, National Output Expenditure and Income. Accessed on 18th November https://www.cbsl.gov.lk/sites/default/files/cbslweb_documents/publications/ess_2021_national_output_expenditure_and_income_e.pdf

[6] Government of Sri Lanka, Department of Census and Statistics , Key Statistics of the Dairy Industry. Accessed on 18th November 2021 http://www.daph.gov.lk/web/images/content_image/Livestock_stat/key_stat/2021/KeyStatisticsDairy2020.pdf

[7] The Sunday Times,”Dairy Industry Fears Collateral Damage from Cattle Slaughter Ban”,October 2021. Accessed 18th Novemeber 2021 https://www.sundaytimes.lk/211024/news/dairy-industry-fears-collateral-damage-from-cattle-slaughter-ban-459368.html

[8] Government of Sri Lanka, Central Bank, National Output Expenditure and Income. Accessed on 18th November https://www.cbsl.gov.lk/sites/default/files/cbslweb_documents/publications/ess_2021_national_output_expenditure_and_income_e.pdf

[9] Government of Sri Lanka, Department of Animal Production and Health, Livestock Statistical Bulletin 2020. Accessed on 18th November 2021.http://www.daph.gov.lk/web/images/content_image/news_bulletins/livestock_statistical/Statistical_bulletin2020.pdf

[10] Interview with Industry Stakeholders

[11] Government of Sri Lanka, Department of Census and Statistics , Key Statistics of the Dairy Industry. Accessed on 18th November 2021 http://www.daph.gov.lk/web/images/content_image/Livestock_stat/key_stat/2021/KeyStatisticsDairy2020.pdf

[12]Food and Agriculture Organisation, Opportunities for Dairy Sector Growth. Accessed on 18th November 2021 https://www.fao.org/3/i0588e/I0588E08.htm

[13] J Vidanarachchi, “Dairy Industry in Sri Lanka : Current Status and Way Forward for a Sustainable Industry”,November 2019. Accessed on 18th November 2021 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344766340_Dairy_Industry_in_Sri_Lanka_Current_Status_and_Way_Forward_for_a_Sustainable_Industry

[14] Interview with industry stakeholders

[15] Interview with industry stakeholders

[16] Interview with industry stakeholders

[17] The Morning,”Cattle Slaughter Ban: Ageing Cows and Beef Demand under Discussion”, October 2021, Accessed 18th Novemeber 2021 https://www.themorning.lk/cattle-slaughter-ban-ageing-cows-and-beef-demand-under-discussion/

[18]The Sunday Times,”Dairy Industry Fears Collateral Damage from Cattle Slaughter Ban”,October 2021. Accessed 18th Novemeber 2021 https://www.sundaytimes.lk/211024/news/dairy-industry-fears-collateral-damage-from-cattle-slaughter-ban-459368.html

[19] Interview with industry stakeholders

[20]Government of Sri Lanka,Department of Census and Statistics, Weekly Retail Prices,2021. Accessed on 18th November 2021. http://www.statistics.gov.lk/InflationAndPrices/StaticalInformation/retail/DCSB-WRP-2021-11-W2

[21] United States Department of Agriculture, Livestock and Products Semi Annual Report  2021. Accessed on 18th November 2021 https://apps.fas.usda.gov/newgainapi/api/Report/DownloadReportByFileName?fileName=Livestock%20and%20Products%20Semi-annual_New%20Delhi_India_03-01-2021